Southampton Kits 10 of my favourite

26 Jan

1976 – 1980 Admiral ‘Candy Stripes’ (home)

saints-candy-stripes

After the initial years of turmoil in which the Saints played in a kit featuring a sash, squares and halves from 1896 onwards the kit entered a settled period where evolution, not revolution was the order of the day. This state of affairs lasted right up until the mid-1970s. For clubs everywhere the this time was a watershed in which new commercial and aesthetic forces saw something of a re-visiting of the artefacts of club identity.
Saints themselves adopted a new crest, designed by a supporter, in the 1974-75 season and in 1976 the kit received its first major overhaul for years. In keeping with the spirit of the age Admiral delivered an effort which is both bold and distinctive, yet at the same time manages to respect traditions. The fact that years later the kit is available for sale in the club superstore is testament to the design.

1980 – 1985 Patrick ‘Inverted Ajax’ (home)

keegan

The ‘inverted Ajax’ is a kit which is synonymous with a bobble-permed Kevin Keegan, the clubs surprise star-signing. One story is that the design was chosen so as to give the sponsors logo maximum exposure – at the time when shirt sponsorship was first taking off – and would go on to be adorned by three separate sponsors in its lifetime: Rank Xerox from 1980-83 Air Florida 1983-84 and Draper Tools 1984-1985.Draper Tools themselves were a local company, with their HQ in nearby Chandlers Ford (a place in which more than a few Saints of the era chose to live) and the company would go on to have a fairly long association with the club.

Despite apparently being shaped by the wrong reasons the kit is an aesthetically pleasing effort. Had such a design appeared today in all likelihood internet message boards would be aflame with protest, but thankfully for this kit they didn’t exist back then and any controversy which may have arisen in the Daily Echo’s letters page now lies buried on micro-fiche in the basement of Southampton Central Library

1989 – 1991 Hummel (home)

saints-89-kit

In the main the recent history of Saints recent kits is one of simplicity. Few kits have either offended, or set the world ablaze. This kit from Hummel is, for me, the best of this quietly-competent no-frills bunch, if only because as a kid I also thought the chevrons on the arms were pretty cool. It also saw the emergence of Mat Le Tissier as a real talent.

1993-1995 Pony (home)

le-tiss-pony

It’s funny how time can change perceptions. In its day I hated this kit. As a fashion conscious teenager the fact that the highly uncool kit sponsor Pony’s chevron logo (a boxy Lada to Nike’s sleek tick) was the kits prime feature was bad enough, but the fact that it was a mere template kit – shared with West Ham – only added further insult.

No one was more glad than me to see the back of it, but looking back from today’s standpoint that chevron didn’t look quite so bad after all and actually seems like quite an interesting twist in amongst a rather identikit parade of fairly conservative strips which would follow in the decade after. Perhaps it’s time for a reappraisal? The truly awful away version can however, never be redeemed.

2002-2004 Saints (third)

cup-final-kit-2003

For most of the noughties Saints produced their own kits in-house. In the main there was little on offer in terms of design flair, but the one which stands out is the 2002-2004 yellow third kit. Aesthetically it is pleasing and I like the collar design. Most importantly for a fair few yellow will always be the Saints traditional away colours and when I first followed Saints away one of the fans main chants was “Yellows, Yellows”, a fact raised by someone at a SISA meeting when it was revealed that the away kit would be changing colour. It is also of course the colour worn in 1976 when we won the FA Cup so it was more than fitting that being drawn as the away team for the 2003 final the Saints would be wearing this yellow kit. One of my friends still wears his to 5-a-side and I cast the occasional envious glance.

2010-2011 Umbro 125th Anniversary Shirt (home)

saints 125 kit.png

To celebrate the clubs 125th anniversary in 2010 the club commissioned a kit to resemble the clubs first ever strip from 1885 – a white shirt with a red sash. Kit supplier Umbro rose to the occasion producing a tasteful, unfussy shirt which was in every way superior to Pony’s 1995-97 attempt to recreate a kit of yesteryear.

Notably the shirt didn’t feature any sponsors logo. This was a conscious decision on the part of the clubs new management. Not only did it enhance the sense of reverence for the clubs history, but it spoke of a financial solidity. The fact that the club could do without the income from shirt sponsorship was a marked difference to the dark-period of financial turmoil the club had just emerged from. As for the stripes, well it’s just for a year isn’t it……

2012 – 2013 Umbro (away)

pinstripes

A bit of a confession to be made is that I actually quite like the 2012-13 home kit; I’m quite a fan of the 1980s retro touch that the pinstripes bring – even if they do remind you more of Nottingham Forest than Saints.
I realise that it’s not to everyone’s taste as it is but the merest of nods to the traditional stripes so my compromise is to include that seasons away kit in my top 10 list. It still has that 1980s feel, but avoids stepping on the toes of tradition.

2014 – 2015 In house (away)

1415away

In 2014-15 kit design went in-house again. To the relief of many fans the stripes made a much heralded return for the home kit, having being absent for 3 of the last 4 years. It’s the dark blue away kit which caught my eye though. Combined with dark blue shorts and dark blue socks the whole strip had a sleekness about it which looked quite cool.

2016 – 2017 Under Armour (home)

current-kit

With kits now changing every single season kit designers face a conundrum. They must satisfy both the need for novelty and the need to respect tradition. The current seasons kit strikes a perfect balance between these two forces. The traditional stripes are present, but the white panel offers something new. And if we win the League Cup in this kit then

2015 Lotto – ‘ the kit that never was’ (home)

saints kit design.png

As a teenager one of my favourite pastimes was to design new saints kits. This was all done using pencil and paper, but these days the internet and decent graphic design software support a whole subculture of amateur kit designers. Some of their output is actually quite good and even rivals the professionals. One such design is this kit which very neatly references the ‘candy stripes’ of the 1970s. Though it’s unlikely ever to be made, could it one day influence a future official design?

The Difficult Past and Uncertain Future of the English Football League Cup

13 Jan

Without the fig leaf of a corporate sponsor the EFL Cup – as it has been branded this season – seems decidedly bare. For this pioneer of corporate sponsorship there are no ribbons in corporate colours, no promotional tie-ins and no cup final tickets reserved for executives and lucky competition winners. In all it is an even more depressing and dour affair than it has been in recent years. Some salvation may be at hand, thanks to a new sponsor, Thai energy drink company Carabao and from June 2017 the EFL Cup will become the Carabao Cup, until at least 2020, but whilst the deal may safeguard the cup for a few more years, the vultures will undoubtedly continue to circle as in an age when the FA Cup is struggling to find space in both congested fixture lists and the hearts of fans a second major domestic cup – a rarity in European football – looks increasingly anachronistic.

Question marks over the cups continued existence are also by no means a recent phenomenon and at least some of its current problems can be traced back to the circumstances surrounding the cups birth. Initially proposed by Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker the cup was merely one element of a package of reform aimed at rejuvenating English football and halting the slide which had begun to set in after the immediate post-war boom years.

The main thrust of Hardaker’s plans involved a restructuring of the league into five divisions of twenty clubs, reducing each clubs number of fixtures. As a compensatory measure for the clubs Hardaker put forward the idea of a new cup competition involving League clubs, to be played as a pre-season contest.

Hardaker’s restructuring plan would however, be rejected by the clubs. They were though receptive to the idea of the League Cup, which received approval at the League’s annual meeting of 1960. A further deviation from Hardaker’s master plan saw the cup instituted as mid-week contest during the regular season, played under the floodlights which had become prevalent at league grounds over the preceding decade. An ironic twist being that the cup, part of reforms aimed at easing fixture congestion, actually acted to increase the fixture burden.

Although it counted Football League President Joe Richards among its supporters (Richards had purchased the trophy with his own money and had his name engraved upon it) when it was launched in the 1960/61 season the cup encountered its share of indifference. Of the 92 eligible clubs 87 signed up to compete in its first year and by its third year this was down to only 80 clubs. Overall the big clubs viewed the contest with such disinterest that lesser sides were able to prosper and in the first year Division Two Rotherham United made the final whilst in its second year the final was contested by Division Two Norwich and Division Four Rochdale.

Soon dubbed ‘Hardaker’s Folly’ by its detractors prospects for the cup looked bleak indeed. That the cup is still around today is thanks largely to two developments; A Wembley final and the prize of a UEFA cup slot for the winners, the latter secured by Hardaker’s strong-arming of UEFA. 97,952 people attended the first Wembley final in 1967 between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion, beating the combined attendance of the two legs of the previous year’s final by over 37,000. The two sides provided a spectacle fit for the grand venue as West Bromwich established a two goal lead, only to see third-tier QPR stage a remarkable comeback. Headlines were assured when it was the appropriately named Mark Lazarus who won the game by netting QPR’s winner in the 81st minute.

This medicine seemed to have had the desired effect and by the early 1970s the cup was enjoying something of a golden age. The most striking piece of evidence of this being the appearance of Chelsea on Top of the Pops, performing their cup final song Blue is The Colour, released to mark their appearance in the 1972 final which reached a chart high of number 5. The 1980s though proved a more difficult time for the cup – and for football in general. Attendances slumped for both cup fixtures and league games, but even in this environment the cup retained its prestige as a respected part of the English game whilst successfully pioneering corporate sponsorship with a landmark deal during the 1981-82 season with the Milk Marketing Board which led to the cup being officially renamed as the Milk Cup .

A new challenge awaited in the 1990s as the coming of the Premier League era saw an increasing shift in clubs priorities towards the ever more lucrative league programme. Manchester United and Arsenal among those who took to fielding cobbled together sides of fringe players and youth players in league cup fixtures – a practice which could, on occasion, spectacularly backfire – such as in 1995 when a weakened Manchester United found themselves being turned over 3-0 by third-tier strugglers York City in front of a stunned Old Trafford in the first leg of their second round tie.

The further expansion of the Champions League in 1999 only added to the cups problems; Not only did it increase the fixture burden of top clubs, but it also greatly devalued the UEFA qualification slot as many more sides could expect to qualify for Europe through the league. Then in the 2001/02 season the cup underwent some drastic pruning at the roots, first and second round matches changing from 2-legged to single games. At a stroke this reduced the competition from 154 games the season before to just 93 games.

In recent years the cup has continued to experience of criticism and disrespect from clubs, managers, players, pundits and fans alike. It is though not without its friends, or even its redeeming features: It is still competitive in the very latter stages, the relatively cheap tickets provide an opportunity for those who might otherwise be priced out of grounds whilst for fans of some Premiership sides the cup retained value as being the one major title within their reach in an era of growing inequality. As pundit Colin Murray pointed out in 2014 the cup “is one trophy Premier League teams outside of the big guns have a real chance of capturing.”

It is therefore a worrying sign when in 2016 for a fourth round game at their St. Marys ground attendance was low enough for the club to close an entire stand to the public, whilst on the field manager Claude Puel announced nine changes from their previous league game. Such indifference at a club like Southampton, whose last major honour was in 1976, serves to highlight the stiff battle for survival the cup faces beyond 2020. To stand any chance the competition must find a new way of being relevant to both clubs and fans alike.

Why We Need to Stop Complaining and Enjoy the Premier League

9 Jan

You don’t have to go very far to find someone criticising the Premier league. the complaints themselves repeated so often as to be familiar: Players are paid too much, not enough wealth trickles down to the grass roots, the gap between the elite and the rest of the field has grown into a gaping chasm. Ordinary fans are priced out of grounds, clubs don’t take cups seriously and so on.

In many of these cases there is some legitimacy to the complaints, though in other cases it can feel as if there is an expectation that the Premier League should solve all the games ills – not to mention societies. This however, is no attempt to debate the merits, or otherwise of the multitudinous critiques on offer, but simply to say that as football fans we should simply sit back and enjoy the Premier League.

The league, as it is, contains the world’s best players, managers and serves up a compelling spectacle with a side-order of real-life soap opera. Despite years of inflation-busting ticket price rises, fans flock to matches, in many cases filling grounds to capacity.

The truth is however,  that whilst we may have been singing “footballs coming home” in 1996 English football has no God given right to host the world’s most lucrative football contest and the harder truth is that one day it will all come to an end.

We may lay claim seniority as the league is the world’s oldest – beginning in 1888 – but in reality this counts for very little – just look at the recent past. By the time it was approaching its centenary in the late 1980s the league was in a truly sorry state; Chronic underinvestment had resulted in outdated and unsafe stadia, hooliganism dragged the games reputation through the mud and attendances, which had been declining for decades, had slumped to their lowest levels since before the war. In the meantime the league periodically lost its best players to leagues in Italy, Spain and France – even our biggest and most prestigious clubs unable to hold on to them.

No greater contrast could be made than with Italy’s Serie A; Average crowds at the time were considerably higher that of the English league (according to the European Football Statistics Website in the 1984/85 season Serie A crowds averaged upwards of 38,000  compared to just above 21,000 for the English Division One). Italian clubs also routinely broke transfer fee records and ahead of the 1990 World Cup Italian stadia received a massive windfall of public money.

Today however, the position couldn’t be more different. Italian league football has experienced two decades of decline. Its clubs, no longer the powers they once were, have seen their financial clout diminish and the last time an Italian club broke the world transfer fee record was in the year 2000 when Hernan Crespo moved from Parma to Lazio for upwards of 335 million. Further evidence of the relative decline of Italian football can be found in Deloitte’s 2016 Football Monet League which ranks European Clubs according to the revenue they generate. Just one Italian side, Juventus, makes the top 10, compared to five English sides.

The slide of Italian football can be put down to a whole range of factors – one of which is the impact of corruption scandals on the league. Equally the rise of the English League is due to a unique confluence of historical, social and technological factors.  The Taylor Report, in the wake of 1989’s Hillsborough tragedy, led to a wave of investment in stadia, with many clubs opting to construct brand new grounds. These grounds were not only safer, but featured revenue generating additions. The club shop became a ‘superstore’ and grounds included hotels, and conference facilities whilst they also included expanded executive boxes and facilities to deliver a premium match day experience.

New broadcasting technology also brought opportunity of a new transformative revenue stream. The restructuring of English Football which came about in 1992 with the Premier league breakaway enabled the top clubs to flourish by providing them with a larger slice of this growing revenue stream. Free from any responsibilities towards clubs in lower divisions the elite clubs were able to spend more on facilities and players. The price though – and the source of many of today’s complaints – was to restrict the funds available to English footballs other professional sides (a unique feature of English football being it’s sheer depth.)

All this came at the right time to enable English clubs to reap maximum benefit from the Bosman Ruling of 1995. The impact of this was to make a whole continent of football players available to whoever could pay the most in wages. This latter point is where neo-liberalism kicks in. With a low tax regime English clubs had something of an advantage when it came to paying player’s salaries which automatically put them in most countries top tax brackets.

There are of course many more factors, but what this illustrates is that English football finds itself in its current position not because of divine intervention, but because of a range of circumstances. That such circumstances change is however, an inevitability. Already there is uncertainty over Brexit which may well have an impact on English clubs ability to recruit continental talent unhindered. Beyond this there have at various points been touted proposals for a European Super League, whilst the Chinese League can be seen by some as a future challenger to the Premier Leagues hegemony.

That the Premier League’s fortunes are largely based on broadcasting revenue which can evaporate at a moment’s notice is perhaps a further cause for concern. The story of Serie A ultimately shows that even a league with a seemingly solid foundation of success can be undermined. The final point is this: Whatever the cause of the Premier Leagues fall may be the fall will come and we will look back on this period of English football as a golden age, one of packed (relatively new) grounds, the world’s top players and pure excitement. We will walk past these grounds in our old age and our grandchildren will marvel at the stories we tell of the scenes we once saw inside. Our present complaints – even if they are justified – will have been long forgotten.

The Wessex League Twitter League 2016

30 Dec

It’s been around 18 months since I last took stock of the Twitter accounts of clubs across the Wessex League. In the intervening period there have been a few changes with several clubs departing and others arriving; Among the departures were Salisbury who by quite some margin had been top of the Wessex League Twitter pile in June 2015 with 6,248 followers. Their promotion to the Southern League South & West division however, means that a new Wessex Twitter Champion can now be crowned….

3.) AFC Portchester 2,102 Followers

Porchy have climbed up from 5th place in 2015, benefiting from both a growth in followers of 841 – the biggest increase in the league, and the fall of the clubs who last year occupied 3rd and 4th. Brockenhurst who were 3rd in 2015 launched a new official Twitter account in July 2016 (the rules being that the Twitter League is based on the counts of official Twitter accounts where these are present), whilst Team Solent, who occupied 3rd spot, switched to a new football specific Twitter account in December (previously football had come under the main team Solent account which was used by sports clubs across Solent University.)

2.) Sholing FC 3,037 Followers

Runners-up for the third time in the Wessex League Twitter league Sholing have once again demonstrated an admirable level of fan engagement. By far the most prolific Tweeters the @SholingFC account has now managed 16,500 tweets, over double that of second most prolific club Fareham Town who managed 7,168. This engagement has been rewarded by an additional 730 followers – the fourth highest increase in the Wessex League. This though was not enough to secure top spot which goes to….

1.) Hamble Club FC 4,879 Followers

Wessex League newcomers Hamble Club FC have proved the surprise package in this year’s Twitter League. Hamble have made waves equally on the pitch and on social media. Currently sitting astride division one, following their promotion from the Hampshire Premier League Hamble’s official Twitter account boasts a formidable 4,879 followers. Considering there was only one Division One club in the top 10 in 2015 it really is a massive achievement.

wsxtop20

wsxtprm16

wsxone16

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Club Account Followers
Hamble Club @hambleclubfc 4879
Sholing @sholingfc 3037
AFC Portchester @afcportchester 2102
Horndean @horndean_fc 1794
Newport (IOW) @newport_iwfc 1752
Verwood Town @verwoodtownfc 1726
Blackfield & Langley @bandlfc 1632
Romsey Town @romseytownfc1 1509
Andover Town @andovertownfc 1453
Christchurch @christchurch_fc 1429
Alton @alton_fc 1348
Shaftesbury @SFC1888 1240
Hythe & Dibden @hythedibdenfc 1236
Fareham Town @farehamtownfc 1196
New Milton Town @nmtfc2016 1095
Tadley Calleva @tadleycallevafc 1028
Amesbury Town @amesburytown_fc 1018
Baffins Milton Rovers @bmrfc 1006
Cowes Sports @cowessports 1002
Moneyfields @upthemoneys 985
Fleet Spurs @fleetspurs 914
AFC Stoneham @a_stoneham 896
Ringwood Town @ringwoodtownfc 890
Bemerton Heath Harlequins @bemertonheathfc 888
United Services Portsmouth @usportsmouthfc 865
Downton @downtonfc 851
Totton & eling @tottonelingfc 844
Weymouth Res. @theterrasswl 840
Hamworthy United @hamworthyunited 837
Portland United @portlandunited 817
Lymington Town @lymingtontownfc 784
Alresford Town @alresfordtown 773
Laverstock & Ford @lavvyfc 756
East Cowes Victoria @ecvafc 740
Bashley @footballbashley 733
Fawley @fawleyafc 692
whitchurch @whitchurchutd 615
Pewsey Vale @pewseyvalefc 603
Andover New Street @andnewstreetfc 405
Brockenhurst @brock_fc 403
Folland Sports @follandsportsfc 130
Team Solent @teamsolentFC 78
Bournemouth no account na

 

The Big Five’s Lost Decade of Attendances

22 Dec

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the merits of watching a game live at the ground, versus watching from the sofa, or a barstool. I’ve always been a bit of a purist where these things are concerned, feeling that football has to be experienced in the flesh, up close, whilst my friend was perfectly happy watching it all on TV.

He had some good points – notably that watching on TV is considerably cheaper and more convenient. Still, I maintain there is nothing like being there in person. For me the whole matchday experience from the moment you take the first step on the trip to the ground to when you exit in a tide of your fellow supporters, sharing either joy, or despair is something to be savoured. It’s why I follow things like attendance stats. For me it’s almost a given that attendance at games is a good thing and growing attendance something to cheer us, like hearing that more books were borrowed from a library this year than last.

This is why something about this graph, based on average attendance data from the European Football Statistics website, alarms me. What it shows is that over the past decade average attendances have remained relatively static across all of the so-called ‘big five; leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga and Ligue 1).

big510yr

In the case of Serie A attendances have experienced a dramatic slide over the past thirty years, so some stability is, perhaps, to be welcomed, but for The Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga the trend over the last 10 years is in sharp contrast to stunning growth all three experienced over the 1990s (and in the case of the Bundesliga on into the early noughties). Just to take the Premier League the figures show average attendance grew from 20,757 in 1989-90 to 30,757 in 1999-2000, a growth of 10,000 spectators per game. Between 2005-06 and 2015-16 however, average attendances have fluctuated around the 35,000 mark (Unfortunately the website only has figures for La Liga from the 1999-00 season so it isn’t possible to see any earlier trends.)

big520yr

So what common factors can be behind the trend which has emerged in all five over the past ten years? The economic crisis of 2008 emerges here as a prime suspect. Data from the Office of National Statistics shows that in the UK mean household income stopped growing and then fell between 2006/07 and 2007/08, really recovering only between 2013/14 and 2014/15. Given the expense of football tickets it doesn’t seem far-fetched to link a slowdown, and decline in disposable incomes to a slowdown in the attendance of football matches, but this is to exclude the fact that the flat-lining trend in England, France and Spain seems to pre-date this, whilst Serie A was already by this point in the grip of a long downward trend.

Stadia capacity is another potential factor. Both the Premier league and the Bundesliga have capacity issues with many grounds operating at, or near capacity. The only way around these is to invest in stadia however, such projects are expensive, convoluted and as a result inherently risky – not least in a time of economic uncertainty. History has shown too that without either external pressure forcing clubs (i.e the Taylor report) or external funding sources (i.e public funds ahead of a major tournament) projects of this kind are few and far between (a question I’ve asked before is are clubs investing enough in stadia). The capacity argument though fails to account for a slowdown in growth in Serie A, or La Liga whilst in Ligue 1 there was a considerable investment ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament.

A third possible common factor is the growth of the amount of football available on television. In the Premier League broadcasting now generates more revenue than matchday revenue. It is therefore little surprise that now fixtures are organised (and changed) to suit television schedules – allowing for more games to be shown live. Across Europe more people than ever have access to the means of watching games broadcast on a pay-tv platform of one kind, or another. Could this easy-availability mean more people – like my friend – are now opting to watch at home instead of going to the ground? This is a point which is subject to debate – and the rise in broadcasting coincided with the Premier League attendance boom of the 1990s, but there is some evidence that live-broadcasting does have a negative impact on attendances and in a 2008 paper published in the Journal of Sports Economics researchers looking at data from Scottish football found that live broadcasts reduced the numbers of ‘pay-at-the-gate’ home team supporters by 30%.

On top of these common factors, there are also likely to be a number of local factors in each case which exert an influence over attendance trends – certainly Serie A’s trajectory has been very different to that of the Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga and owes at least part to circumstances particular to that league. What though of the prospects for the future – what will attendances look like in ten years time?

If like me you believe that football is best enjoyed at the stadium there are at least some grounds for optimism. Attendances have proved resilient to economic crisis – they may not have grown, but, Serie A aside, they haven’t declined either. In the Premier League and Bundesliga, although growth has been dramatically reduced and is subject to fluctuation, there is a sign of a weak upward trend in average attendance. Importantly too in the Premier League capacity is rising. West Ham have increased their capacity since moving to the London Stadium and construction is currently taking place at Tottenham’s new stadium which will create yet more capacity whilst a number of other projects are in development. Perhaps the real issue though is with judging attendances by the yardstick of the recent past which was, in many ways, a spectacular period of positive adjustment for most of the big European leagues and quite simply could not be sustained over the long-term.

Data from European Football Statistics

Season Ending Ger Eng Spa Ita Fra
2016 43300 36461 28568 22162 20896
2015 43526 36179 26835 22057 22250
2014 43499 36670 26955 23310 20953
2013 42624 35921 28237 23234 19211
2012 45116 34600 28796 22466 18870
2011 42665 35294 28221 24306 19742
2010 42500 34151 28286 24957 20089
2009 42565 35614 28276 25045 21050
2008 39426 36076 29124 23180 21841
2007 39975 34363 28838 18473 21940
2006 40745 33864 29029 21698 21552

Ali Dia – A View From the (Milton Road) Stand

6 Dec

As a fan of Southampton the Premier League era got off to a painfully slow start. Stuck in a ground with a capacity of barely more than 15,000 we lacked not only the financial clout, but also, it seemed, the prestige of many of our peers. The greatest hope we had then was merely to keep a seat at the top table, all the while casting envious glances at the visiting sides with their exciting foreign stars such as Cantona, Ginola, Bergkamp and Gullit.

Often too even the modest aim of survival seemed perilously close run, not least in the 1995-96 season when we were fortunate to avoid relegation only on goal difference – survival being secured by a 0-0 draw against Wimbledon. Were it not for the occasional moment of Le Tissier magic things would have been bleak indeed.

It is hard therefore to overstate the impact the managerial appointment of Graeme Souness, ahead of the 1996-97 season, had on the mood of the fans at the club. Fresh from adventure – and controversy – with Turkish giants Galatasary the appointment of Souey, then still a ‘big name’ manager, hinted strongly at a hitherto missing sense of ambition.

For his part the moustachioed one wasted little time in making promises to bring in crowd-pleasing players from across Europe. Such a proclamation was also undoubtedly music to the ears of the local press too who after a very lean year were free to churn out endless stories around potential new targets, trialists and new signings.

Amongst the splurge of newsprint though was one particularly curious tale, which stood out even then. The basic details have been told so many times in the past two decades as to hardly need repetition, but it started with reports of a telephone call Souness received from AC Milan star and World Footballer of the year George Weah. In this now infamous call Weah – or as we would later find out someone impersonating Weah – personally recommend his cousin Ali Dia, a Senegalese international, who’s CV apparently included a stint alongside Weah at Paris St. Germain.

Souness’s interest suitably piqued he agreed to take a closer look and so it was Ali Dia arrived at the club. The arrival of a triallist – even one with a supposed international pedigree – was at the time relatively unremarkable, but the fact that a world-football star like Weah had even heard of Southampton – hardly a fashionable club – was enough flattery in itself to ensure the presence of local TV crews at the clubs Staplewood training ground.

For us fans this only added to the feeling we had at the time that we were at long last joining the mainstream of the Premier League. In reality though the squad was so threadbare that Souness’s barely had enough fit players to field a team. This, along with a postponed game for the reserves he had been due to figure in, meant that Dia found himself on the bench for a Premier League game against Leeds. An injury to star-player Matt Le Tissier then saw Dia take the final step onto the field. Although untested at Premier league level having purportedly scored twice for Senegal in a recent international expectation was nevertheless high. Almost immediately it seemed well founded. My seat in the Dell’s Milton Road end providing me the perfect vantage point when as the freshly-introduced Dia tested the keeper with a powerful low shot towards the near post.

From some standpoints this was the waste of a golden opportunity, but the crowd, myself among them, seemed happy enough with the effort at the time to be chanting Dia’s name. This brief moment of adulation was though as good as it got for Dia who failed to make any further mark on the game. His Premiership career ignominiously halted just short of the final whistle when he was himself substituted off for defender Ken Monkou.

In fairness to Dia, the Saints performance that day was hardly a vintage, but the question increasingly being asked was what had the world’s best player seen that we’d missed?

A few days after the Leeds game Dia made another appearance in the red and white, coming on as a substitute for the reserves in a game against Chelsea in which the Saints lost 2-0 on Wednesday the 27th. There is little record of Dia’s performance on that occasion, but despite the clubs programme for the next home game against Aston Villa on the 7th December boasting Dia’s arrival at the club brought the number of full-internationals at the club to 12 it seems clear that Dia’s saints career was at an end.

Meanwhile scrutiny of Dia’s back-story, particularly around his link to Weah, was growing and the Sunday Mirror duly provided an expose on the 15th of December which revealed that all was not what it seemed. By this time Dia had returned to the North East (immediately before joining Saints Dia had made one appearance for Blyth Spartans) where he turned out for Gateshead the day before the Mirror’s story broke, getting on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win over Bath City.

Dia’s career would however never really take off and after graduating with a degree in Business in 2001, he appears to have quietly slipped away. Over the intervening two decades the story of Ali (or Aly – according to more recent reports) Dia has attained legendary status. In part this has been because Dia, in an increasingly social media saturated world, has enigmatically kept a remarkably low-profile – though more recently attempts to track down Dia appear to have made some headway.

The story is compelling for another reason too; Whatever his own personal motivations, or circumstances Dia lived out every fans dream of getting onto the pitch. It was a dream I understood well, particularly as the Dell was one of those old-style grounds which provided you with a seat so close to the action. So close, in fact, that it didn’t seem such a leap to imagine being on the pitch yourself. It seemed crazy, but I’d often wonder if I could somehow score a crucial goal just by being in the right place at the right time? Was it possible? Aly Dia very nearly did.

Are Football Clubs Doing Enough to Attract Fans?

21 Nov

Do Premier League clubs need fans at all? This is the question posed in a post on The Ball is Round blog. The main thrust of the piece is that with incomes from other streams such as sponsorship, broadcasting growing at such alarming rates the actual income from fans turning up has declined in importance so much as to render it comparatively unimportant.

This caught my attention as I wrote an article some time back in When Saturday Comes which made the suggestion that for clubs it was easier to chase a greater chunk of the increasing broadcasting revenue pie, than it was to sink money into costly – not to mention complicated – long-term ground improvement projects. My argument followed that as a result of this dynamic relatively little of the enourmous amounts of money flowing into football would go into ground improvement projects. Certainly there would be no return to the stadium boom of the late 1990s and early-to-mid noughties. This however, proved to be a rather controversial article. Since adopting a new comment-free format the original comments on the WSC site have vanished, but among the criticisms offered were that in a number of cases clubs have been investing in ground projects.

The Ball is Round article got me to think again on the topic of attendances in the Premier league and this dynamic whereby putting bums on seats simply does not matter as much to clubs as pursuing other revenue streams. Since I wrote my WSC article Tottenham – one of the few clubs who didn’t demolish and relocate in the stadia boom – have finally moved out of White Hart Lane, and are in temporary residence at Wembley. West Ham have also moved into the Olympic Stadium – which was funded overwhelmingly by public money. Elsewhere there have been gains in capacity, such as Liverpool adding 8,500 seats to their main stand, whilst other clubs such as Chelsea and Everton are pursuing plans for new grounds, but taking a look at the big picture overall activity is noticeably slower than in the recent past. From the 1990s onward there was an unprecedented construction boom as clubs brought their grounds up to date after a decades-long cycle of low investment; According to the Deloitte 2012 Annual Review of Football Finance, over the previous 20 years clubs collectively invested around £3 billion in grounds and facilities, including the construction of over 30 new stadiums.

One noticeable impact of this construction slow-down is that the rapid growth in attendances which was seen over the first decade of the Premier League era has slowed down considerably. It could be said that perhaps this is a natural tailing off of demand, but with many games sold-out or near capacity there is strong evidence that there is still plenty of unmet demand out there. The Premier League still also trails behind the Bundesliga in putting bums on seats. European Football Statistics puts average attendance over the 2015-16 season there at 43,300 – still significantly ahead of the 36,461 for the Premier League over the same period. There are some explanatory factors here, particularly that the Bundesliga contains only 18 clubs rather than 20 which may have an impact when looking at averages, whilst standing is permitted in areas of German grounds.

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This latter point may chime with those currently advocating safe standing, although in practice converting all-seater stands to standing is unlikely to be straightforward and beyond the stadia themselves there are a whole range of infrastructure concerns such as the ability of transportation networks to cope. Secondly even if safe standing were a cheap and easy solution to increasing Premier League ground capacity at the present time it is likely that the same dynamic which leads to under-investment in stadia would remain in place over the long-term.

Ultimately though one of the interesting debating points which came from the reaction to my WSC article is that the question is how much should clubs be investing in the sort of facilities which will enable them to attract even more fans to games? Like with anything in the world of football there is a range of opinion – where do you stand?

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